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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Break Room

Help! My Mom Just Doesn't Get My Goals

Dear Fran,

I’m a couple years out of college and definitely not working in my dream job. However, whenever I bring up my discontent with my current position with my mom, she almost always ends the conversation with some remark on how marriage and motherhood changes one’s priorities.

Yes, I’ll be getting married this summer, but I consider that entirely separate from my career goals. My fiancé and I are both just starting out in the professional world, and take our jobs equally seriously. We’re not planning to start a family anytime soon. I feel like my mom’s remarks dismiss my career concerns as irrelevant, at a time when I’m focusing a huge amount of energy on establishing myself in my field.

How do I get my mom to recognize that my ambitions at this point in my life aren’t the same as hers were when she was my age—and that’s okay—without seeming as though I’m criticizing her for having been a stay-at-home mom rather than a career woman? I don’t want to add to the tension.


Ambitious and Engaged

Dear Ambitious and Engaged,

Am I allowed to agree—and disagree—with both of you?

I certainly agree with mom that marriage (and motherhood) changes one’s priorities.

But do I think your mother is wise to keep telling you this? No. Do I think she’s being foolish to dismiss your current career concerns and goals? Absolutely. Do I think your interpretation of that “changing priorities” means you’re necessarily going to end up being a stay-at-home mom as she has? No way.

In my view, your mother is making a multitude of relationship blunders here. She’s mistakenly assuming (or perhaps only asserting) that the lessons she’s learned will be the same lessons you learn, in effect denying you the right to have your own life journey. She’s trying to convince you to adopt her beliefs as your own. By acting as if she knows more about what you’re feeling (or will feel in the future) than you do, she’s delegitimizing your feelings.

Plus, she’s talking too much, she isn’t listening, and she’s offering an interpretation or solution when, frankly, you didn’t ask for one.

Unfortunately, these mistakes are common. Mothers are by no means the only people who make them. Men (and very often significant others) make them, and friends make them too. And I’m sure you yourself make them.

But part of the reason they’re particularly difficult to navigate with your mom is that your relationship is intrinsically hierarchical. Until a child starts to move into her teen years, the mother has all the power. But, as the daughter begins to make her own decisions, the mother-daughter relationship needs to change into one closer to a non-hierarchical friendship.

This process is not always easy. As the brilliant sociolinguist, Deborah Tannen, author of You Just Don’t Understand, Women and Men in ConversationYou’re Wearing THAT: Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation, and other important books about communication, explains: “Part of the reason [motherly advice] bugs us as daughters is because our mothers are so powerful in our lives. They loom like giants. The reason mothers keep at it is that they’re so powerless.”

I can’t change your mother, and you probably can’t either. But maybe you can attempt to deepen your relationship or forge a more satisfying one in which each of you give the other respect for her choices and create a context in which each can grow. You say you don’t want to create any more tension, but I say you have to be able to tolerate any tension you would create by attempting to change the status quo.

First, reassure your mom by telling her that you respect the choices she made. Remember that she made those choices for you. Tell her you’re grateful for all she did for you. Validate that had she worked full-time, she may have not been able to do all those things—bake cookies, attend every PTA meeting, make dinner, whatever.

But be careful: It's possible her knee-jerk reaction on this subject is a misguided attempt to ward off regrets she might feel about her own choices. Making difficult and important choices, by its nature, can produce profound and painful regrets about the path not taken.

You can then gently remind her that, in the modern world, women put their lives together in a multitude of different configurations. And, as you put it, that’s okay. But, also consider these questions: Why keep complaining to your mom when you keep getting the same upsetting, invalidating response? Why not complain to a girlfriend or your fiancé? And why do you need her to approve of your decisions? Yes, the criticism stings—after all, we all want Mom’s approval—but if you can try to focus more on what you think is best for your life, you’ll be better off in the long run.

(As a side note, you might address your discontent with your current job by checking out my previous column: “Help, I’m Stuck at a Job I Hate!”)

And finally, violating my own rule, here’s a piece of general advice you didn’t ask for. Remember that life always throws curveballs. Live it with humility, an open mind, and a sense of adventure. Be prepared to duck and swerve and reach and change direction. You may find yourself making choices that surprise even you.

I wish you luck with your mom, your career, and your marriage.


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Photo courtesy of Ian Brown.